“The Art of More”

Television dramas about rich people and their wealthy lifestyles tend to follow a formulaic method. The characters are depicted as superficial, the storylines are usually generic and the drama is exaggerated to an excessive degree. Frequently, these white-collar shows portray the upper class as devious, corrupt or greedy, their success only making them more obsessed with power and money. Though some of these shows have proven to be successful (CW’s “Gossip Girl” and ABC’s “Revenge”), they don’t always offer engrossing material or delve into thought-provoking themes. Such is the case with Crackle’s new original series “The Art of More.”

While a decent attempt at being a suspenseful crime thriller, “The Art of More” is mediocre and somewhat perplexing, focusing more on glamour than on content and coherence. Set in the seedy underbelly of New York auction houses, the show centers around successful, debonair art executive Graham Connor (Christian Cooke, “Witches of East End”). Connor works at the upscale Parke-Mason auction house, where he encounters rivals, affluent clients and a black-market side business. Based on the premise alone, “The Art of More” seems like it could be an appealing exploration into the lives of American socialites through their ventures in crime and debauchery. But alas, it only builds on bland clichés. The only exception is that these socialites bid for fancy cars and famous paintings, which is about as unexciting as it sounds.

The pilot episode, “Heavy Lies the Head,” doesn’t do “The Art of More” any storytelling justice, with a convoluted plot that’s very easy to get lost in. Several flashbacks are used to convey Graham’s backstory, but the organization of the episode sets a confusing tone for the show. In the opening scene, there is a flashback to an Iraqi museum in 2009, where Graham is an American soldier who becomes engaged in a physical struggle with art robbers attempting to steal a prized crown. Then, the scene shifts to present day, where Parke-Mason is selling that same crown for a large sum of money. Though the first scene is referenced later and gives more details about Graham’s past, “The Art of More” struggles to achieve any fluid connection between these flashbacks and Graham’s character.

While the cast of “The Art of More” is attractive and fit for their roles, the acting could use a great deal of work. Graham’s charismatic suaveness with potential clients helps his business at Parke-Mason, but Cooke’s stilted, robotic delivery as Graham makes him sound unconvincing. Dennis Quaid (“Vantage Point”) plays Sam Brukner, an obnoxious, Donald Trump-type billionaire and client of Parke-Mason, whose prominent drunkenness and flirtation with young women is grossly overused. Perhaps Brukner is supposed to be an unlikable character, but “The Art of More” could make his role more three-dimensional if it reduced his erratic behavior. Graham’s boss Arthur Davenport (Cary Elwes, “Saw”) acts like a typical slimy villain, with no distinctive features other than his blue suits and British accent. However, one bright spot in the mostly dull cast is actress Kate Bosworth (“Still Alice”) as the alluring, elusive Roxanna Whitman, one of Graham’s adversaries. Though she is on screen briefly in the pilot, Bosworth breathes life into Whitman, making her the show’s most intriguing and mysterious character.  

Unfortunately, Bosworth’s presence and the show’s stylish aesthetics seem to be “The Art of More” ’s only redeeming qualities. There aren’t any compelling twists, thrilling action sequences or exciting plot developments. Instead, “The Art of More” moves at a plodding pace and offers ambiguous clues about Graham’s mysterious past and ulterior motives. Considering “The Art of More” is featured on the streaming service Crackle, a poor man’s Netflix, it hasn’t reached the inventive heights of other online original series, especially since it shares the same platform as a raunchy animated series (“SuperMansion”) and a direct-to-video sequel of a David Spade movie (“Joe Dirt 2: Awesome Loser”). Even though it has some potential to break creative barriers for crime dramas, “The Art of More” needs more suspense, more character development and a more gripping plot in order to do so.

Grade: C

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#PrayForParis: the virality of international terrorism and Western culture’s insidious nature

In 2015 alone, our world has faced a series of violent outbreaks and conflicts, affecting innocent people on both a national and global scale. But even in these moments of darkness, our society has stood together, especially after the tragedy that struck Paris last Friday in what became the deadliest attack against France since World War II. With 132 civilians murdered and hundreds more wounded by ISIS terrorists, the attacks in Paris demonstrated another devastating blow against humanity. This was also the country’s second major terrorist attack this year, following the Charlie Hebdo shooting in early January. As horrific and despicable as these attacks were, what surprised me the most was how viral the attacks had become online.

Within the 24 hours of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, people from all over the world showed an outpouring of support for the French on virtually every social media outlet. Twitter users tweeted their thoughts with the hashtag #PrayForParis; Instagram flooded with the now-circulating symbol of the Eiffel Tower attached to a peace sign; Snapchat created a filter with “Pray for Paris” scrawled in French and in English over a red, white and blue background; many people on my Facebook feed, including myself, have overlaid the colors of the French flag on their profile pictures. I was fascinated by how rapidly everyone showed their solidarity with the people of Paris. And while it’s uplifting to see everyone stand together with France in such a timely manner, it’s imperative that our society also recognizes the other atrocities around the world that the media has unfortunately neglected to publicize.

While scrolling through my newsfeed, I happened to find a report from Mic.com on numerous suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon that killed 43 and injured 239 this past Thursday. In addition to that, I found another story about a recent instance of a terrorist attack in Baghdad, where a suicide bomber had killed at least 19 people at a funeral in a mosque. In April, a group of al-Shabab militants killed 147 people at Garissa University in Kenya. Considering how much attention the Paris attacks received, it felt somewhat discriminatory that the media responded more quickly to attacks in Paris than in Beirut, Baghdad and Kenya. Does this mean that the media bases its focus solely on how drastic the situation is, where the location of the situation is and how many casualties and injuries there are?

It’s easy for people to simply dismiss the strife and brutality occurring in third-world countries because we have become so desensitized to the constant radical violence and terrorism in those places. It also makes sense that people respond more heavily toward the attacks in Paris, most likely because France hasn’t endured as many extreme terrorist attacks as Beirut, Baghdad and Kenya. However, this shouldn’t be the kind of groupthink our society employs in our everyday lives. No matter who the victim is, people are people, regardless of what region, race or ethnicity they belong to. The murdered innocents in Kenya, Baghdad and Beirut matter just as much as any of the murdered innocents in Paris.

In terms of how these events integrate into social media, would it make sense for Facebook to also have a Lebanese flag overlay to show solidarity for the victims in Beirut? Or possibly create a Snapchat filter for the Kenyan students who perished? I’m not entirely sure. But it wouldn’t hurt to write a status about Beirut, Baghdad and Kenya on Facebook, create a hashtag on Twitter or at least engage people in discussions about these kinds of atrocities. While social media helps connects us to others around the world, we need to remind ourselves that it also manipulates our cultural understanding and outlets like Facebook and Twitter tend to capitalize on these events. As Americans, we are only limited to what we perceive outside the country through what we see online, on television and on our mobile devices. To stand united as a world against inhumane acts of evil, we must understand and acknowledge the people who are also being affected by the same kind of evil. Once we achieve that, then our world can hope to live as one truly interconnected, peaceful and loving society.

“Donny!”

One of the most common tropes in television comedies also seems to be one of the most entertaining: famous people playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Watching celebrities poke fun at their fame and fortune has become somewhat of a captivating concept for audiences. But while this formula has created some of the most critically acclaimed TV shows in history (“Seinfeld,” “Louie,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), it doesn’t always work. Unfortunately, USA’s new original series “Donny!” seems to prove that.

Despite being sporadically funny, “Donny!” falters as an uninspired comedy that relies mostly on tasteless jokes about the media and celebrity culture. Playing the show’s womanizing eponymous protagonist, real-life TV personality Donny Deutsch certainly has some experience in the industry. Deutsch has led a successful career in business as an ad executive and in television as a judge on NBC’s “The Apprentice” and a former host of CNBC’s “The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch.” Though Deutsch plays a fictionalized version of his real-life persona in “Donny!,” he exaggerates himself to the extreme and the results are neither as original nor as clever as they could be.

In the pilot “A Sext Ruined My Life!,” Deutsch’s character is introduced as the host of a talk show called “Donny!,” which looks like a cross between “Dr. Phil” and “Maury.” On the show, Deutsch’s first guest is a young woman named Becky, whose racy sext has become a viral meme and deemed her as the “Psycho Sexter.” Rather than sympathizing with Becky and her situation, Deutsch shows her picture to the mortified live audience, leaving her in tears and even more distraught. While this scene may have intended to satirize the exploitative qualities of talk shows, it doesn’t provoke any laughs nor offer any insight.

Throughout the rest of the episode, Deutsch continues to squander every possible comedic moment with bland, insipid humor. In a brainstorm meeting with his thick-skinned associate producer Pam (Emily Tarver, “The Residuals”), Deutsch uses lesbians and cancer as ideas for topics to boost ratings for his show. Later on, while defending his relationship with his Russian girlfriend Galina (Tina Casciani, “Jane the Virgin”) to his concerned assistants, Deutsch suddenly breaks the fourth wall, promoting a product placement of Hak’s BBQ Sauce to the audience. Though this scene is probably a tongue-in-cheek reference to Deutsch’s real-life advertising repertoire, it feels incongruous with the show’s overall tone.

As Deutsch recently told Rotten Tomatoes in an interview, he is intentionally playing an “idiotic” version of himself on “Donny!” Deutsch does indeed play an idiot, but one whose stupidity seems more obnoxious than hilarious. In this episode, he continually misunderstands the difference between a visual sext and a “suggestive picture,” when they are clearly the same thing. In addition to denouncing Becky for her sexting situation, Deutsch takes a shirtless selfie, which is intended for Galina and accidentally sent to his daughter’s teacher. Of course, the racy selfie becomes viral like Becky’s and immediately causes bad publicity for Deutsch. At this point in the show, you would expect some sort of character growth from Deutsch, who would learn from his mistakes and recognize the irony of his actions. But instead of taking responsibility for his hypocritical behavior, Deutsch acts on this viral mishap for his own self-interest. When appearing on an MSNBC morning show, he markets the selfie as part of a made-up charity for carcinoma, dismissing the inherent issue of his sext, or what he considers a mere “suggestive picture.” Though Deutsch has the charisma and natural delivery, his character is in dire need of some development.

The one aspect that is surprisingly refreshing about “Donny!” is the predominantly female cast. Deutsch and his young son Jagger (newcomer Jacob Thomas Anderson) are the only two male characters present in the episode. But even then, the women on the show are portrayed in a stereotypical, one-dimensional fashion. Deutsch’s snarky two assistants Jackie (Hailey Giles, “Hustle & Flow”) and Zoe (Meera Rohit Kumbhani, “Weird Loners”) come off as mean-spirited and his newest assistant Violet (newcomer Jessica Renee Russell) acts naive and desperate to win Deutsch’s attention. His daughter Coco (Fiona Robert, “Law & Order: SVU”) is the typical spoiled, vapid teenager, who gets in trouble at school for cussing out a kid in Mandarin. During her brief screen time, Galina is a purely sexualized spectacle, canoodling with Deutsch and acting out a cheeky roleplay with him, in which she plays a Russian figure skater to Deutsch’s Vladimir Putin. Even Becky the “Psycho Sexter” from the opening scene is made out to be crazy and hysterical. However, as conventional and clichéd as these roles may seem, the one character who mostly subverts the female TV stereotype is Pam, who uttered the funniest, sharpest lines by far.

While “Donny!” lacks the depth, heart and genuine humor of other meta comedies, the premise of a middle-aged, self-obsessed talk show host could potentially make the show interesting. But at the moment, “Donny!” doesn’t really know what kind of show it wants to be yet. “A Sext Ruined My Life!” plays out like any other generic pilot, rushing and overlooking small details and not giving any room to develop an intriguing storyline. Perhaps its late time slot and its presence on a television network filled with dramas that could be the problem.

Nevertheless, “Donny!” fails to make a lasting impression, even with a celebrity at its helm. 

Grade: C-

“Master of None”

The archetype of a young person finding his or her way in the world is a familiar one. We’ve seen this character in countless coming-of-age television shows, movies and novels. But perhaps the reason why stories continue to revolve around this archetype is because we all encounter similar personal obstacles at some point in our lives. For 32-year-old Aziz Ansari, this character could not be more relatable. Known for his sharp stand-up comedy and his role as the goofy, cultured Tom Haverford on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Ansari adapts this archetype and his own experience of living in the modern world in his semi-autobiographical show “Master of None.” Gleaming with ambition and charm, “Master of None” offers insightful commentaries on the entertainment industry, technology, family, diversity and dating.  

In addition to writing and creating the show with “Parks and Rec” writer Alan Yang, Ansari plays the protagonist Dev Shah, a 30-something, up-and-coming actor navigating through life in Manhattan with his diverse group of friends and his parents — played by Ansari’s actual parents. Though the show only delivers a meager 10 episodes, each has its own deft blend of hysterical one-liners, tasteful cinematography and perceptive drama. The show’s opener “Plan B” explores the perks of single life versus married life through Dev’s botched one-night stand and venture to a child’s birthday party. “Parents” focuses on Dev and his friend Brian (newcomer Taiwanese-American actor Kelvin Yu) and their generational gap between their hard-working, immigrant parents. “Hot Ticket” presents Dev’s date gone wrong as an examination of the unexpected pitfalls of romantic relationships. Despite how most topics covered on “Master of None” are used in Ansari’s stand-up and best-selling book “Modern Romance,” the dialogue on the show still sounds rich and authentic, evoking a naturalistic style reminiscent of works by Woody Allen and Richard Linklater.

When watching “Master of None,” it’s easy to draw parallels to Louis C.K.’s acclaimed meta-satire “Louie” and Chris Rock’s star-studded comedy film “Top Five.” Each primarily takes place in New York City, uses innovative aesthetic techniques and features famous celebrities as exaggerated versions of themselves. Rock, C.K. and Ansari also write and act in their own work, playing characters who embody the traits of their creators. However, “Master of None” is noteworthy in its own right. It’s not as cynical as “Louie” nor as flashy as “Top Five.” “Master of None” simply combines the best qualities of both and adds its own distinctive flare.

Visually, “Master of None” is incredible to look at. It employs a warm color palette that saturates the streets of New York and scenes of Nashville from the Ansari-directed episode “Nashville.” The show also boasts an incredible soundtrack that includes music by Mac DeMarco, Lou Reed, Father John Misty, Broken Bells and Beach House. Ironically, Beach House’s dreamy tune “Master of None” is used in one episode, possibly as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the show’s title. In addition to the gorgeous visuals and outstanding music choices, “Master of None” enlists a fantastic cast of talented actors: Eric Wareheim (“Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”) plays Dev’s dorky single friend Arnold; Noël Wells (“Saturday Night Live”) plays Dev’s love interest Rachel; Lena Waithe (“The Comeback”) plays Dev’s deadpan lesbian buddy Denise; Ravi Patel (“Transformers”) and H. Jon Benjamin (“Archer,” “Bob’s Burgers”) play Dev’s actor friends. Even Claire Danes (“Homeland”), Danielle Brooks (“Orange is the New Black”) and rapper Busta Rhymes make some unusually delightful cameos. Ansari manages to craft these characters as three-dimensional and intriguing people, rather than portraying them as superficial, clichéd caricatures. Surprisingly, each side character also seems to have natural chemistry with Ansari, especially the lovely Wells.

While “Master of None” delivers Ansari’s topical humor, the show challenges viewers with socially relevant issues as well. In the seventh episode “Ladies and Gentlemen,” feminism and sexism come to light as Dev gradually comes to understand the double standards women face in today’s society. In the standout episode, “Indians on TV,” Dev ruminates over the misrepresentation and stereotypes of Indians seen in television and movies, citing Ashton Kutcher’s brownface in a Popchips commercial as an example. In one pivotal scene, Dev auditions for the role of “unnamed cab driver,” where he is reluctant to use an Indian accent when asked. “You know, Ben Kingsley did an (Indian) accent in Gandhi and he won the Oscar for it, so … ” the casting director remarks. “But he didn’t win the Oscar just for doing the accent,” Dev retorts. “I mean, it wasn’t an Oscar for Best Indian Accent.” This exchange not only showcases Ansari’s quick-witted humor, but also underscores the casting director’s microaggression as an example of how the industry undermines people of color in acting roles. These are just one of the many instances in “Master of None” that exhibit Ansari’s range as a groundbreaking actor and writer.

“Master of None” is a classic coming-of-age story, but Ansari perfectly nails every facet of a young person’s life, whether it’s discovering new things, falling in love or thinking deeply about the world we live in. One thing is for sure: Ansari may be a “master of none,” but based on this show alone, he has the potential to become the “master of everything.”

Grade: A

“How to Dance in Ohio”

Young adulthood can be one of the most transformative periods in a person’s life, as well as one of the most challenging. It’s a time when you develop relationships, become independent and figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. However, being a young adult also involves dealing with a lot of angst and self-doubt. In her touching documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” filmmaker Alexandra Shiva (“Stagedoor”) offers some insight on this topic by focusing on a group of teenagers and young adults from Columbus, Ohio all of whom are on the autism spectrum. With the help of clinical psychologist Emilio Amigo at his family counseling center, these individuals spend 12 weeks preparing for their first spring formal dance, learning how to improve their social and communication skills — and of course, how to dance.

Filmed in 2013 and premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “How to Dance in Ohio” gives more than a simple depiction of people with autism. Through Shiva’s sensitive direction and the film’s unobtrusive cinematography, “How to Dance in Ohio” highlights the daunting experience of breaking out of your comfort zone and how it can lead to personal growth. Nothing about this film feels manipulative or exploitative; rather, it offers viewers the chance to see both the struggles and triumphs of young people with autism.

Although the film portrays the sessions that take place at Amigo’s Family Counseling, it mostly centers around the perspectives of three young women from the group: Marideth Bridges, 16; Caroline McKenzie, 19; and Jessica Sullivan, 22. Regardless of their different ages, they each encounter difficulties in learning how to adapt to the world around them.

Marideth, a self-described introvert, spends most of her time on the computer and reading random facts in world almanacs. She also likes researching, but feels uncomfortable explaining to the camera what she is researching exactly. Though Marideth’s perseverant habits and her reluctance to interact with others are common among people with autism, the film conveys just how hard it can be to live with such a condition. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, Marideth expresses to her parents at a sit-down restaurant that she might not want to have kids and wonders if she will even get married some day. It’s an emotionally stirring moment that’s guaranteed to make viewers’ hearts drop, yet it reminds the audience that Marideth’s autism doesn’t need to hinder her from living a normal life.

As a director and storyteller, Shiva does a great job of showing how people with autism are just as ambitious and open to opportunities as anyone else. For example, Caroline mentions her enrollment as a student at Columbus State Community College, her hopes of becoming an early childhood educator and her dream of traveling to Japan. Early in the film, Jessica negotiates a plan with her parents to live on her own, and she is later seen working at a bakery called Food for Good Thought for young adults on the spectrum. But much like Marideth, Caroline and Jessica undergo the stresses of social anxiety and the pressures of being perceived by others in a negative way. Caroline agonizes over dancing well at the formal and what to do if she becomes too overwhelmed to ride the public bus to class. Jessica becomes frustrated when the bakery’s owner, a psychologist named Dr. Audrey Todd, tells her that Jessica has developed a superior attitude towards her co-workers. Despite Jessica, Caroline and Marideth’s ongoing difficulties with fitting into the mainstream, the film presents their situations in a honest and respectful light. In addition, the interviews with their families showcase both the concern and support that they have for their children who go through this difficult journey every day.

While the film can be very emotional at times, there are some humorous and sweet moments as well. In one scene, Marideth and her younger sister discuss Chief Keef, the irrelevance of Soulja Boy, the turbulence of Miley Cyrus’s career and long-haired men. The sequence where Caroline and Jessica go shopping for formal dresses with their mothers is also particularly heartwarming. Not only do these clips give the documentary heart and depth, but they also illustrate how young adults with autism have the same interests and goals as any other young adult. At the actual formal, the climax of “How to Dance in Ohio,” you can see how this group has developed so quickly and overcome their initial fears in such a short amount of time. The only arguably flawed moment in this film is the inclusion of Katy Perry’s pop hit “Firework” in the credits scene. But even though “Firework” makes the ending slightly cheesy, you can’t help but feel overjoyed to watch these individuals do something that most people with autism don’t get the chance to do.

Grade: A-